For more on what has been a slow start for the Raptors, here are 10 observations from their first 10 games.
1. Pascal Siakam is back.
Let’s start with a positive.
Siakam got off to a rough start this season but was a completely different player in Toronto’s four-game Western Conference road trip. He went from averaging 17.6 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists in the first five games to 24.0 points, 10.5 rebounds and 7.0 assists in the last four. His efficiency also spiked, from shooting 40.7 percent from the field to 52.9 percent.
Siakam’s passing has been perhaps the most impressive part of his game lately. As I wrote after he dished out a career-best 12 assists in Toronto’s win over the Sacramento Kings, he’s been forcing the defence to adjust to him much more as opposed to taking what the defence gives him. And when the defence has adjusted to him, he’s been doing a good job of making them pay with the extra pass.
Siakam dished out only three assists against the Golden State Warriors but posted his first career triple-double against the Portland Trail Blazers to the tune of 22 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists.
This particular pass made my jaw drop when it happened in real time:
Siakam has already dished out at least six assists in four games this season. That’s tied the second-most such games he’s ever recorded in a single season, his most coming in 2018-19 when he had seven six-assist games.
Siakam still has room to grow as a scorer – he might take some heat for coming up short in the clutch against the Warriors and Blazers, which would be unfortunate because he was fantastic in both games – but him taking the next step as a facilitator is a big deal for his long-term development.
2. The post is becoming Pascal Siakam’s best friend.
If it feels as though Siakam is posting up a lot more, it’s because he is.
According to NBA.com, Siakam is averaging 4.0 post-up possessions per game so far this season. Last season, he averaged 2.8. He hasn’t been particularly efficient, ranking in the 40th percentile with 0.92 points per possession, but a lot of that probably has to do with him getting off to such a slow start.
Besides, Siakam has proven to be a handful in the post in the past. His size makes him a tough matchup for smaller players and his quickness makes him a tough cover for bigger players.
When he’s in attack mode out of the post, good things tend to happen, both for himself…
Nobody should be surprised that Aron Baynes and Alex Len haven’t been able to replace Gasol and Ibaka, but I’m not sure anyone saw them struggling as much as they have.
Baynes has gone from starting at centre for the Raptors to not logging a single minute in the last three games. Len has started in two of the three games Baynes has been benched but played only 7.1 minutes per contest.
As a result, the Raptors have been leaning a lot more on playing small with OG Anunoby and Siakam at power forward and centre lately. Their go-to small ball lineup of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Anunoby and Siakam has already played 26 minutes together.
For what it’s worth, the five of them didn’t register a single minute together in the regular season. They then played only 37 minutes together in the playoffs.
While there are benefits to going small – it gives the Raptors a lot more versatility on defence and opens up the floor on offence – I can’t imagine the Raptors envisioned leaning on small ball this early into the season. The early returns haven’t been great either.
4. Chris Boucher has arrived.
The one positive from Baynes and Len struggling is that it’s opened up more opportunities for Boucher, who has hit the ground running.
Boucher has already scored 20 points in four games, which is impressive considering he entered this season with a total of three 20-point games in his career. He’s blocked at least one shot in all but one game as well, including a career-best seven blocks in Toronto’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs.
Keeping Up With The Canadians 🇨🇦
Chris Boucher | vs. @spurs
3 THREE POINTERS
7 BLOCKS pic.twitter.com/tP1nnGoO3R
– NBA Canada (@NBACanada) December 27, 2020
Following the Western Conference road trip, Boucher is now averaging 14.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.6 blocks on 47.2 percent shooting from 3-point range. He’s unlikely to sustain that level of 3-point shooting for the entire season, but even if he proves to be an average 3-point shooter – Boucher was a career 32.1 percent 3-point shooter entering this season, don’t forget – it would be huge for the Raptors.
5. No 3-pointer is safe around Chris Boucher.
For those keeping track at home, this marked Boucher’s sixth blocked 3-pointer of the season:
Why is that notable? It’s the most in the league.
Boucher blocked 12 3-pointers last season, tying him with Anthony Davis for sixth-most in the league.
6. Where’s the defence?
We’re still working with small sample sizes here, but the Raptors rank 21st in defensive efficiency through 10 games, giving up 111.1 points per 100 possessions.
Again, losing Gasol and Ibaka hurts, but it’s shocking to see the Raptors go from having the second-best defence in the league to being in the bottom half seeing as they still have Lowry, VanVleet, Anunoby and Siakam, each of whom were All-Defense candidates last season.
Possessions like this, in which the Raptors completely forget about Damion Lee, stick out in my mind:
The Raptors have the personnel to turn it around on that end of the court and have faced some of the league’s better offences lately, but they can’t afford to hemorrhage points like they have to start this season.
Yeah … not good.
7. The bench is a work in progress.
The second unit has been better lately, but Nick Nurse is still searching for answers.
The one constant off the bench has been Boucher. It’s otherwise been a bit of a struggle. Stanley Johnson has been what the Raptors need defensively, but he doesn’t give them much offensively. Similar deal with Yuta Watanabe. Matt Thomas gives them shooting, but he’s gone from playing 38 minutes in Toronto’s first two games of the season to a total of 10 minutes in the eight games since. Terence Davis has been up-and-down, and it’s been a slow start for Malachi Flynn, although that’s to be expected seeing as he’s a rookie.
Some of that’s unlikely to change – Johnson has never been a scorer and the biggest concern with Thomas has always been his defence – but the one player who is much better than he’s shown to start this season is Powell. Following the best season of his career, Powell is averaging 10.5 points on 36.9 percent shooting from the field through 10 games. He’s shooting the lights out from the perimeter (42.9 percent) but has struggled inside the arc, converting only 31.0 percent of his 2-point attempts.
If Powell can get back to the player he was last season, that would go a long way in solving some of the bench woes.
8. Fred VanVleet is living up to his contract.
VanVleet had a tough game against the Blazers, but he’s been fantastic otherwise. Through 10 games, he’s averaging a career-best 20.9 points to go along with 5.8 assists and 1.3 steals, all while playing basically the same amount of minutes as he was last season.
The biggest difference with VanVleet this season is he’s letting it fly from 3-point range. The only players in the league averaging more 3-point attempts per game than VanVleet (9.0) as of this writing are Donovan Mitchell (9.1), James Harden (9.4), Damian Lillard (9.9), Buddy Hield (9.9), CJ McCollum (11.0) and Stephen Curry (11.4).
VanVleet has been highly efficient, knocking down 38.9 percent of those opportunities.
9. The Raptors are on the right track.
Centre play and inconsistent defence aside, the Raptors are starting to look more like themselves again. Sure, going 1-3 on the road trip isn’t great, but they put up a good fight against the Suns and went down to the wire against both the Suns and Blazers. The Blazers loss hurts the most, as the Raptors led for all but two minutes in that game.
The Raptors have to turn good losses into wins at some point, of course, but it seems as though they are on the right track following their awful start.
“You can tell we’re back to playing Raptors basketball,” Boucher said following the loss to Portland. “I think everybody starts seeing flashes of the way we can play. We’ve just got to be able to finish games. That’s (five) games that slipped away from us: Phoenix a close one, Philly a close one, Pelicans a close one, the last two were close ones. Those all could have been wins.
“I think we’re getting a little closer. It’s a long season. But we can’t afford to be losing games like that now that we’re 2-8.”
10. The next 10 days are important.
The Raptors are back in action on Thursday when they kick off a five-game homestand. They play the Charlotte Hornets twice, the Dallas Mavericks once and the Miami Heat twice in Tampa Bay over the next 10 days. None of those games will be easy – the Hornets have been one of the biggest surprises this season while both the Mavericks and Heat are playoff-calibre teams – so we should find out if they’re actually on the right track.
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